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AND SO ...

5. COASTAL FORCES BECKON..... joining ML.1030 at Clynder to complete her building, delivering her to Cardiff, and then to Liverpool to join a fast Middle East troop convoy

on to Chapter 6. "Battle for Crete in a Motor Launch"


Sometime in June 1940 an Admiralty communication was posted on the mess-deck notice-board, calling for volunteers to serve in Coastal Forces, which were motor torpedo boats, motor gun boats and motor launches. I read this and then searched through the current Fleet Orders to find out more about this type of service. The sea-time patrols in H.M.S. Repulse were becoming boring and steaming in three watches became so repetitive that the glamour of the service in motor torpedo boats became a strong lure. Together with Doug Scantlebury I submitted my request to be considered for service in the Coastal Forces.


 The ultimate decision rested with the Captain, but first the requests had to meet with the approval of the Senior Engineer Officer. He was not too pleased with the idea of losing two watchkeepers and tried to convince us to withdraw our requests, but we managed to make him understand and he grudgingly agreed to forward them to the Captain. By now the older and senior members of the mess-deck were telling Doug and me in no uncertain terms what idiots we were to leave the life on a battle-cruiser in exchange for that in the small boats of the Coastal Forces. We had already heard of the death of one of our chums who had volunteered to serve in submarines.

Eventually Doug and I became Captain’s Requestmen, dressed in Number Ones, the best uniform, paraded in front of the Captain to be told that our requests had been granted and that on return to Scapa Flow we would leave the ship for onward passage. When, at the end of our patrol, the Repulse anchored in Scapa Flow our draft orders caught up with us, so we prepared to leave the ship. There were goodbyes and good lucks all round; the Master-at-Arms who gave us our draft chits formally told us what idiots we were. To this day I remember him saying to us: "They will never sink this bugger." How little he knew!

And so, each carrying our kit bag, hammock and suitcase, we boarded the old Fumerole for the journey to Thurso, there to entrain for Devonport Barracks. This was my first experience of travelling by train in wartime. When Doug and I arrived at the station the waiting train was already packed full and bulging at the seams with men and women from all three services. Finding an open carriage door was one thing, but to find any space inside was another. We finally found a compartment filled with matelots who managed to jam our kitbags and hammocks on top of the already loaded luggage racks and we were able to sit in the corridor, using our suitcases for seats, forcing ourselves among the unfortunates who had to stand. The enmity of those near to us soon changed when it was discovered that we had some tins of ticklers in our suitcases. Doug Scantlebury, being an ‘old salt’ with about three years service, was adept at rolling ciggies, disdaining the use of a Rizla machine, and in time became popular when very thinly rolled ticklers were handed round. Doug and I had a Pusser’s packed lunch, the invariable bully beef sandwiches, a hard-boiled egg and an apple. The nearby soldiers - or ‘pongoes’, as they were known - had full water bottles, so eating and drinking problems were resolved. But not so the problems of those who just had to go to the lavatory. In comparison to the railway coaches of today, where passengers can walk in relative comfort along the centre aisle, everybody had to use the corridor to move around. Just imagine the gentle, caring, considerate remarks that were handed out to he or she who made the heroic attempt to pass us unfortunates, packed like sardines in that corridor. From the remarks made by us obstacles and the passers-by who just couldn’t hang on any longer, I learned a new vocabulary, in spite of having been in the navy for a couple of years. The members of the Wrens, ATS and WAAF came in for special treatment; blokes would deliberately squeeze against the girls as they forced their way along, to remarks of: "I enjoyed that, hurry back!" Some of the girls could give apt replies as well. The sailors in the packed compartment had an empty milk bottle, so we were "alright, Jack".

It reminds me of the Engine Room Department’s motto which was, and I hope still is: "Nil illegitimae carborundum", which loosely interpreted means: "Concerned as I am about your predicament, I am all right because I am fireproof." Now, you can take that to pieces and construe or misconstrue it as you will. I had an ‘A’ for Latin studies, ‘A’ for ABSENT.

Motor Launch ML.1030 just after launching in Clynder, Scotland, October 1940. A contrast in size with (below) HMS Repulse in camouflage!

Late that evening the train arrived at Carlisle where everbody had to disembark. Once more we had to hump our kit in complete darkness. I had heard of darkness visible, but everything seemed invisible. In wartime soldiers en route to other places carried a kitbag of clothing, a rifle and bayonet and had a respirator - or gas mask - slung over the shoulder. The members of the RAF were loaded similarly but without rifle and bayonet. The women members of the forces travelled somewhat the same as the R.A.F. The Good Lord once said to an ailing person: "Take up thy bed and walk." We matelots, when transferring from place to place, ship to ship, had to do exactly the same, so that we carried a respirator, a kitbag, hammock and suitcase. Don’t ask me how. In normal times a couple of bodies would be told off to purloin a large station trolley with which to move the kit, but in wartime blackout this turned out to be a pantomime. "Porters?" I hear you query. All called up or invisible. Anyhow, Scants and I had to find a certain platform for onward passage to Plymouth North Road Station. One of us sat on the kit, the other wandered off into the darkness. Having found the platform, we discovered several other service men and women en route to Plymouth, so a baggage train was formed and we all mucked in to guard and transport the kit. As usual the next train for Plymouth would leave in the early hours of the morning, so there were several hours of waiting. But, wonder of wonders, in the waiting room a number of camp beds were set up. Members of the Women’s Voluntary Service had set up a routine so forces travellers could rest on camp beds and arranged to call them when their train was due. These volunteers provided a mug of hot tea for each traveller upon being awakened. Then it was a case of lumping kit into a luggage wagon, before travelling to Plymouth. This time we did manage to find seats in a compartment and stow our kit on the luggage racks, lending our suitcases to a couple of soldiers in the corridor. The compartment in which Scants and I travelled was the end one in the carriage, so we didn’t have too much hassle when doing a toilet ranger stint. Much, much later the train arrived at North Road Station, again in the blackout, but on the platform was a member of the good old Salvation Army, serving mugs of tea, which were of course most welcome.

Transport, in the form of a lorry, finally arrived to take a group of us to the Naval Barracks, arriving at about dawn, sometime in June 1940. The usual joining barracks routine followed - medical and dental check-ups. Ratings joining barracks were eagerly pounced upon by the "Poultice Wallopers" to examine Pay and Identity Books in a hope that the recipient was due for a vaccination or top-up innoculation against the many infections one could collect when away from their tender care. The number of brawny, sun-bronzed, tattooed matelots who would collapse like a ton of bricks when facing an injecting needle was amazing. I have seen hairy Chiefs sitting on chairs before injections; it was a case of sit down or fall down. Wait until I write about the injection caper when in Germany! After stowing our kit and completing the joining routine - no injections today, Mum - Scants and I went to breakfast. Then we had to report to the Stokers’ Regulating Office to officially become a Barracks Stanchion - that is, somebody who worked hard at avoiding work. But fate had other plans for us. We were told to report to the Drafting Office, which meant that our orders for onward despatch to Coastal Forces had preceeded us.

What follows takes some beating. Doug Scantlebury lived somewhere in Newcastle; I lived in Devonport. My draft orders were for a boat being built on the Gareloch in Scotland, at a small boatbuilding yard called Clynder, opposite Helensburgh. Doug’s draft order was for Mashford’s boatyard at Cremyll on the Tamar, a ferry-ride across the river from Stonehouse. Scants couldn’t hope to get a long weekend from Cremyll to travel to Newcastle. I couldn’t hope to get one from Helensburgh to travel to Plymouth. So there was only one logical course of action: see the Drafting Commander to swop drafts. We were equal in proficiency, being First Class Stokers possessing Auxiliary Watchkeeping Certificates, so there was no way we could upset the apple cart if we swopped drafts. We knew it would be all right; the Drafting Chief Stoker could see no objections and gave his blessing, so we reported to the Drafting Commander with high hopes. BUT we had forgotten one of the Engine Room pearls of wisdom, put together by sages over years of blood, tears and sweat: "Blessed are they who expecteth nothing, for they are never disappointed." The Drafting Commander listened to our requests, showed a lot of interest and then turned down the requests. "Not Granted" and proceded to prove to us how Britain could lose the war if our requests were granted. We had been chosen to make up crews with specialists from other branches, carefully vetted and that was that. "Blessed are they."

I joined H.M.S. Centurion, a very old battleship, as holed as a collander. For years she had acted as a target for the big ships’ shoots; normal bulkheads and passage-ways did not exist. Finding one’s way about that hulk was strange to say the least; the massive holes in the decks and through the bulkheads gave me a vivid image of what the victor in a battle at sea could look like. On the Centurion I did some training courses ready for service in Coastal Forces. Doug Scantlebury and I parted and we have never met since then. I wonder how he fared.

Upon completion of the courses I rejoined Barracks, ready for the journey to Clynder. Draft routine once again: medical and dental inspections, then kit inspection, where I met the remainder of the ratings who were to make up the crew. In the course of standing by the boat whilst under construction, several changes in the crew took place before we finally took to the water, so I will name those who finally went to the Mediterranean. Bill Sams, the telegraphist - more about Bill later. Syd Pownall, an Ordinary Seaman who, because he was the youngest, was automatically called "Wings". Being an O.D., he was to a certain extent still under instruction from the Coxswain’s "Winger". In the Barracks, ratings came and went on a special train which left from the Barrack’s railway platform. Thus, on our day of departure, we mustered in the Drill Shed, together with a large number of others travelling to various destinations. Our kits were taken to be loaded in the goods wagon. Each was issued with the proverbial Pusser’s Bag Meal and, carrying our oilskin coats, respirators slung over left shoulders, we marched to the Barracks Station and entrained. The Coxswain of our crew, a Leading Seaman, held our draft note. We were to change trains at Crewe, which reminds me of an old music hall ballad which begins thus:

"Oh, Mr. Porter, what shall I do?
I wanted to go to Birmingham
And they’ve put me off at Crewe."

Crewe Station was the intersection point for anywhere. Our crowd had managed to bag a compartment; bag meals, oilskin coats and respirators were stowed on the luggage racks and nine of us fitted happily into seats for eight. The corridors were empty, so there weren’t any members of the women’s forces against which one could squeeze en route to the lavatory, just the Naval Patrol whose job it was to quietly meander along the corridor, keeping "Good Order and Naval Discipline" and seeing that no gambling was taking place.

Other than at Fleet Regattas and organised games of Tombola, or Bingo, no forms of gambling were allowed and severe punishments were handed out to any miscreants so apprehended. In spite of this a popular gambling game called ‘Crown and Anchor’ often appeared, but this, played with special dice, required look-outs to be posted. The rattle of the dice in a leather cup and the enthusiasm of the players needed observers to warn of the silent approach of the Crushers and Jaunties. Some of these people had a standing job to ride on the troop trains. What a war! How they must have suffered!

On arrival at Crewe we detrained, claimed our kit and the Coxswain set off to find further information about onward travel. In war-time all major stations sported an R.T.O. I suppose those initials stood for Royal or Railway Transport Office, or something, but all forces travellers knew it as R.T.O. From here one was supposed to gain information about onward movements. Thankfully at Crewe Station there was a large room containing camp beds, so if the next train left in the distant hours a bed could be booked, a timely awakening arranged, together with a cuppa from the W.V.S. or the Salvation Army. We were able to bed down together; the Coxswain had the responsibility of arranging the shakes; that is what he was paid for. Sometimes the hook on the arm can become very heavy! So, being wakened in the early hours, we manhandled the kits onto the relevant train and journeyed onward, ever onward to Helensburgh, crossing the Gareloch to arrive at Clynder.

Apparently we were not expected just then; there was a problem about accomodation and victualling. The best that could be offered was the upper floor of a loft - a not too clean floor at that. We begged brushes from the boat builder, had a good sweep out and sort of settled in, making the best of it for the time. There were no fittings for slinging hammocks so we bedded down on the floor; hammocks are not very comfortable as beds in such a cramped situation. Here I met my immediate boss. He was a P.O. Motor Mechanic called Tommy Andrews and we hit it off well right from the start. He was a Scot and I believe he lived in or near Glasgow.

We were at Clynder to stand by the construction of a seventy two feet Motor Launch. It would be equipped with Asdic gear, depth charges and a gun and be powered by two Glennifer diesel engines, which became the responsibility of Tommy Andrews and myself. There were now eight of us living and sleeping in the loft and conditions became bad. We had to use the toilets in the boat builder’s yard and these were nothing to shout about; domestic and laundry arrangements were primitive. Our Commanding Officer arrived, a Lieutenant Cooksey R.N.V.R.; he was able to arrange accomodation for us in a hospital ship in Gareloch. Here we were able to revert to normal Naval life. Unfortunately those enjoyable conditions did not last very long and with the ship due to sail the question of accomodation arose again. Because we were the first crew to arrive at Clynder the question had not arisen, but the need for billeting was evident. Eventually four of us were billeted with a Mr. and Mrs. Carson in comfortable if cramped conditions. There was already a young shipwright apprentice from the boatyard living with the Carsons and he was overjoyed to have us as brothers, people with whom he could converse in the evenings - and in the evenings there was not much else to do.

His Majesty’s Motor Launch 1030 was nearing completion, so the P.O. and I began familiarising ourselves with the engine room layout and prevailing upon the workmen for extra storage space for the spare gear which kept arriving daily. The launch was to be self-contained and there was ample provision for fuel and water. Six of us ratings would live in the bows, the P.O. and the coxswain shared a cabin; the skipper and the sub-lieutenant shared another. Space would be at a premium, but then we weren’t on the Queen Mary. The skipper prevailed upon a well-known actress of the day to launch the 1030, and so began the acceptance trials which went on for many days. One of the two Asdic ratings had done a cookery course of sorts and there was a coal-fired bogey in our fo’c’sle mess-deck on which a large black kettle steamed endlessly, always ready for making ‘char’. Besides the two diesel engines for main propulsion, there was a smaller ‘donkey’ diesel engine, a maid of all work which drove a generator to supply power; it also could supply sea water under pressure for fire-fighting and flushing the toilets and, most important of all to Tommy and me, compressed air, essential for starting the main engines. In the engine room there was manually operated pump to compress air into the high-pressure air bottles, in case the ‘donkey’ engine became defective. Pumping manually became my job if ever this happened. I tried it once, just for the experience and then studied the maintenance manual of the ‘donkey’ engine until I knew it inside out. When hand pumping, the hand on the bottle pressure gauge hardly ever seemed to move and, thank goodness, that ‘donkey’ engine never gave a moment’s trouble.

Familiarisation drills took place so that in an emergency departments could take over other jobs; the sub-lieutenant, second-in-command, called ‘Jimmy The One’ or ‘Number One’ decided that I should become the emergency gunner, so I had to learn to fire the three-pounder gun. At least my rounds hit the water! Then he suggested that he could be useful in the engine room while I was on the gun. Tommy Andrews pondered what to give Jimmy The One to do to keep him busy and out of harm’s way. There was only one answer, seeing he was so enthusiastic - to pump up the air bottles by hand. He soon lost his enthusiasm, and I can understand why! Trials continued day and night, sometimes working with submarines giving the Asdic ratings plenty of experience; we had to be able to provide immediate top speed when depth charges were dropped, otherwise the explosion could take away the stern of the launch. Those explosions underwater sent hair-raising sounds to us in the engine room and often resulted in a good supply of dead fish!

Christmas 1940 was drawing near and, although hoped for, there was no chance of leave. We were told that 1030 was designated to join a flotilla for service in the Mediterranean, leaving early in the New Year of 1941. Lieutenant Cooksey, the skipper, arranged with the local hotel at Clynder to supply us with our Christmas dinner and Christmas Day turned out to be cold, dry and clear. Towards tot time, when the issue of rum appeared, the skipper said he would give a bottle of whisky to any member of the crew who would swim around the launch, fully expecting to find no takers. Like an idiot I stripped off to my underpants, dived off the stern, swam around the ship and climbed back onboard. That water was cold and my tot of rum went down a treat. The Christmas dinners were delivered; there was a small bird for each person together with the usual vegetables, and a grand meal it was. That evening the skipper sent for me to give me the bottle of whisky, which the eight of us shared. Up to then I had never drunk whisky and I wished I had never started. At about midnight I felt ill and my only relief was to go and sit on the bollard on the fo’c’sle, gulping in all the cold air I could find. I was ‘proper poorly’, my inside seemed to be filled with burnt toast and I stayed most of the night at the bows. Whisky I cannot drink, no matter what is used to mix with it. I fell asleep on the deck and awoke feeling freezing cold, with a horrible taste in my throat. I went below, boiled up the black kettle and made some tea, taking some to everybody. I couldn’t sleep so why should they?

After the Christmas break we continued with exercises and Bill Sams, the telegraphist, received a signal from Admiralty for the skipper. Orders had arrived for 1030 to be in Cardiff at a certain date in January 1941. HM ML 1030 returned to the boatyard in Clynder for some last minute modifications, good-byes and good wishes were said to the friends we had made - after all we were something special, being the first crew to arrive there - and on a late December day we set off for Cardiff. Mistakenly thinking we were on a cruise down the west coast, we were buzzed by aircraft and challenged by other ships; Bill Sams was fully occupied signalling out the correct codes for the day. To cap it all, the elements decided to join in and a real storm arose. 1030 proved her sea-worthiness then. She pitched and rolled all over the ‘oggin’ and the storm became so bad that the skipper ordered slow ahead on the engine room telegraphs and we just held way against the south-westerly gale. Bill Sams was ordered to send a signal that we could not make the E.T.A. at Cardiff and the skipper was ordered to make for Peel in the Isle of Man. So we arrived at Peel early on New Year’s Day 1941. Once secured in harbour 1030 was made shipshape again. The bogey was lit and a brew-up organised. The cook - I nearly wrote the ‘chef’ - prepared breakfast and we waited for the worst of the storm to blow itself out.

Many weeks had passed since I had had a haircut, my customary short back and sides had worn off, so I requested to be allowed to go ashore for a haircut. The skipper granted the request and off I went into Peel to find a barber’s shop. January 1st in Peel in 1941 saw every business closed and I wandered through some lonely streets. Everybody must have been sleeping off the effects of seeing the New Year in. At last I saw the familiar sight of a red and white candy-striped barber’s pole sticking out at an angle from what appeared to be a private house with a large bay window. The front door was open so up the four or five steps I went, into the entrance passage and turned right into the large front room, which was obviously the barber’s shop. I took my cap off, put it on a hook and sat on the box seat in the bay window. I passed the time leafing through some back editions of the old magazines usually found in any barber’s shop. There was no sign of life, so I called rather loudly: "Is anyone at home?" No answer, so I went to the foot of the stairs and called loudly once more. I went back into the shop and soon there was the noise of somebody on the stairs, then into the shop came the barber. He must have been annoyed at being disturbed, but when he saw me in uniform he seemed rather flabbergasted and asked me what I wanted. Being in a barber’s shop with hair rather longer than was expected from a service man, the reason seemed rather obvious, but I answered: "I’d like a haircut, please." And this is where the pantomime began. When he heard my request he became agitated, accompanied by: "No, no, no." For a moment I couldn’t understand what all this was in aid of, so I sat in the chair ready for him to begin work. Again there was a "No, no, no," and he rushed out of the room; I heard him calling to somebody upstairs. This was his wife and together they came into the room. Seeing me sitting in the chair they both began saying: "No, no, no." They told me that barbers never cut hair on New Year’s Day, as terrible bad luck would follow for the person who had the haircut. They were adamant: cutting the hair would cut off the customer’s good luck. Fool that I was, and not believing in their superstitions, I prevailed upon him to cut my hair. The wife declared she wouldn’t stay to witness such an act; the barber warned me once again but at last consented, saying that he would accept no money and that, being a service man, I should know better. When he had cut my hair and brushed my shoulders, together with his wife he came to the door of the house and shook hands, the wife hugged me and wished me well with good luck for the New Year. I should have listened to them and foregone the haircut on New Year’s Day 1941 - as May 26th 1941 would show.

When the gale abated we got under way, arrived at the entrance to Cardiff Docks and proceeded to our berth. The launch met up with the other two launches to form a flotilla for coastal defence in the Mediterranean. Just as we had unpacked spare gear and carefully stowed it when we took over 1030, so the spares had to be repacked carefully for the long voyage via Capetown, South Africa. The launches were to be transported on a merchant ship, which meant that the engines had to be put in a state of preservation, the high pressure air bottles emptied and all loose gear in the engine room secured. The fuel and water tanks were emptied, bilges pumped empty and the donkey engine put into preservation. The remainder of the crew were putting their respective parts of the ship into preservation, the coxswain was responsible for the de-storing routine and came a day when members of the Port Admiral’s shore staff carried out a rigid examination of the launch to ensure she was ready for transportation. Then it was a case of up bags, hammocks and suitcases again and make for the railway station to H.M.S. Drake, i.e. Devonport Barracks once more.

Because we were going on Foreign Service the ‘joining barracks’ routine had to be carried out. First to the Medical Officer for a good medical examination and a couple of injections because we were going to "them ther’ foreign places". Be sure that the notifications of these were stamped in the Pay and Identity Book, otherwise some zealous Poultice Walloper would want to show his skill. A visit to the Dental Office and a "sit in that chair". Memories, memories. Another good examination, probing with that awful pointed piece of steel, but all was well and the Pay Book was duly stamped. Then to the Stokers’ Regulating Office, where they didn’t want to know me; I was on foreign draft; stow your kit in the special store allocated to ratings going on foreign service, collect a leave pass and a fortnight’s pay, purchase the regulation tin of tickler’s tobacco for going on leave and proceed on fourteen days leave. Those ratings living far from the port area were given railway travel warrants: me, I just hopped on a bus.

Father was still a member of the Police War Reserve, engaged in normal police duties; by this time regular policemen were being called to serve in the forces. My cousin, Dick Harvey, a one-time member of the Navy had bought himself out of the service and became a policeman. One condition of purchasing oneself out of the Navy was that one automatically became a member of the Royal Naval Reserve. Thus at the outbreak of war Richard Harvey RNVR found himself rapidly back in the Navy for the duration. Being a policeman, he returned to the Navy as an R.P.O. or ‘Crusher’, and later you will read how I met him in R.N. Barracks.

Naturally I went to see Grandma, who wanted to know what had been happening to me. When I told her about the episode on New Year’s Day she became quite concerned, repeating that she had lost a son in the last war and didn’t want to lose a grandson in this war. I was reminded that as I was the last of the Siddalls in the family I should marry Mabel, just in case, so that there could be another member of the family. She said something that touched me deeply: "I would always have helped you out for your Mother’s sake." Marrying in war-time was the last thing I thought about. Two fit and healthy people, marrying and living together come what may, is alright, but being married with a short life of bliss and then returning from war physically or mentally unfit could put a blight on any future happiness, which was something I would not contemplate. Remember when I wrote about seeing two survivors from H.M.S. Glorious, one of them suffering from the effects of badly frozen feet; it was touch and go whether the feet would be amputated.

Mabel was on shift work in the Civil Defence, so we were meeting at different intervals. I was conscripted into the darts team again and I visited Grandma frequently. It was in one of our sessions together, talking about the family and the war that I learned again about the episode of being upside down in her arms. She was now blind and as we laughed about the incident she said: "I must have been blind then." It is amazing that, from all the conversations people have, certain snatches are remembered

And so leave ended, as all leaves did, and I returned to Barracks. One day I met a member of the Stokers’ Regulating Office staff; he was from the Repulse. Apparently those in the office were nosing through my service certificates prior to forwarding them to my next depot and discovered I had enough seniority to be put on the next Leading Stoker’s course and that I should apply. I don’t know, reader, whether you have ever had a hunch to decline something, but at the moment of speaking with this office wallah something stopped me from going to the office. Had I gone I could possibly have been taken off the foreign service draft, spent many months at Engineering School and from there gone on to an Advanced Engineering course, to finish up as my cousin, Charlie Stephens. But that something, that hunch, held me back. Had I taken that step, would I have been here today? I could have eventually gone back to sea and finished up fifty fathoms deep. Que sera!

With the rest of the crew I waited in the Barracks until a train was assembled and we were once more mustered in the Drill Shed with kit, oilskin and respirator. Working parties took the baggage to the train, while we collected our Pusser’s bag meals and marched to the Depot Station. No sooner were we entrained, carriage doors slammed shut, the old green flag waved, the guard’s whistle blown and we were off under the same conditions as before, this time to Liverpool. From the windows of the backs of the houses adjacent to the railway line towels and handkerchiefs were waved; here and there we saw a pair of knickers fluttering and we wondered how many of the wavers were weeping, or ... ! No stopping at Crewe this time; we were due to embark on a troopship waiting to join a fast convoy. Late at night the train arrived at Liverpool and in the darkness of the black-out we waited in the train until a cold dawn saw it being unloaded. We claimed our kit and walked up the gangplank of the Motor Ship Glenearn. She had been built as a motor-car transport ship but was now fitted out with mess tables and stools, hammock hooks and wash places. I expected that we would stay together as a crew and share a mess, but it was not to be. The mess-deck C.P.O. called my name and I was put in charge of a mess of twenty or so very junior ratings from all branches. They had never been to sea, just a minimum of boat training, so I had to more or less teach them the art of living around a mess table.

Seemingly they had lived in a Butlin’s Holiday Camp when called up for service in the Navy; they had land-drilled at their respective branch work, had never dished up or scrubbed out, but had been waited on hand and foot. When these lambs were detailed to join the mess they just dropped their kitbags and hammocks on the deck. Wearing oilskins and with respirators slung, they huddled close together and looked so forlorn and frightened that if their mothers could have seen them they would have stopped the war promptly. When the mess-deck Chief gave me the mess list of names he sort of lifted his head in exasperation and said: "The best of luck, Lofty. I won’t interfere for a couple of days; they’re all yours."

The first job was to call their names and check that the bodies belonged to me. Off respirators, oilskins and caps, place them neatly on the table, stand up the kitbags, open them, roll up oilskins neatly, fish overalls from bags, place oilskins and respirators in bags and stow neatly in our mess kitbag rack. With me around them like a sheepdog they slowly began to come alive. I had them stow their hammocks in the rack and I noticed they had begun to come together in groups and pairs, which was a good sign; they even began to talk to one another. Then I told them to take off their uniforms down to their underwear, put on overalls and stow their uniforms neatly in the kitbag. Came the call over the loud-hailer: "Cooks to the galley." It was time to collect breakfast. Memories of Butlin’s were still with them and I believe they were waiting to go along and collect a meal. I told them what was to happen and took them to the galley to show the way. This brought back memories of our Training Division days. I made one of them call out our mess number loudly and had a couple of them collect our metal dishes, containing fried bacon, beans and fried tomatoes, automatically called ‘red lead’. Back to the mess, out eating irons and plates, sit them at the table and show them how to serve the food as evenly and fairly as possible. I had one of them cutting the bread into fairly thick rounds and let them tuck in. At least they seemed to be alive because all the plates were clean. I sent one lad back to the galley with the urn to come back with hot tea, and by this time I was ready for my cuppa. Yes, life had come back into them, they began to chatter away. I took time to look around and mentally weigh them up. Oh Butlin’s! I believe they would have sat there forever if I had let them. I took them to the Central Stores to draw soap, a scrubbing brush and cloths, then back to the mess to send a lad with a large mess kettle for hot water. I told them to pair off and together we washed the dishes and dried them; I told two of them to take the dish water, find the upper deck and empty it down the gash shute into the river.

Reader, please pardon me if this episode appears to be boring, but I must emphasise the need for these ratings to be as efficient as possible in living arrangements so that they would immediately fit in when joining a warship. The next detail was to learn to scrub clean the mess table and stools; even handling a scrubbing brush was a work of art. I told the first pair that after supper they would be cooks of the mess for the next twenty four hours. Their first day passed in my care and I shepherded them round the spaces in the ship so that they would become reasonably familiar when any alarm rattlers sounded off. After tea and supper, when I had all of them mucking in, letter writing time came for all of us and I observed one or two having a quiet weep now that the novelty of joining a ship had worn off. Slinging hammocks became the next trial; some of them would have finished up sleeping in the shape of a letter U, so they copied my method of slinging the hammock as near horizontal as possible and then we practised getting in and out of hammocks. "Pipe down" followed, and so the first day ended.

.... now out of Liverpool, through the Bay of Biscay, on south to Freetown, stopover at Simonstown and then north up though the Indian Ocean .....

Early next morning the Glenearn moved out into Liverpool Bay. I took my charges with me to the various messes where the established ratings were living to give the youngsters ideas of what was to be expected of them. Then came the magic day when we were at sea. This was to be a fast convoy with not many ships, but there was the usual bodyguard of small warships around us. By now the youngsters had been taken to form working parties to keep the ship clean and I was at a loose end. My responsibility was to keep the mess clean and the youngsters in order. In a couple of days the convoy entered the Bay of Biscay, and on this January day of 1941 the old Bay was kicking up a bit. In a hammock, bad weather is not so noticeable; the vessel tends to roll around the hammock. Bad weather is usually noticed when one stands on the deck. Some fortunate people are immune to sea-sickness, others are not so lucky. I had my share of sea-sickness, as future narratives will reveal. On the particular morning, when entering the Bay of Biscay there was a discernable roll on the Glenearn. Whereas my youngsters had rapidly become old sailors in the past couple of days, that morning saw several of them become ‘proper poorly’. Reader, if you have ever suffered from ‘mal de mer’ you will know all you want to do is to go somewhere and die. Thus it was with some of these lads. I made the spritely bodies lash up and stow their hammocks and help those who only wanted to lie down anywhere. The mess bucket came in really useful. I apologise for appearing disgusting, but life is life and this is one of the facts. These youngsters, so affected, just didn’t want to do anything and had to be harried into life. Toilet, shave and wash, then breakfast to be brought from the galley. "Who said breakfast?" Those who thought they were dying I sent to the upper deck and warned them about standing on the lee side of the weather deck. Amongst the remainder we had an ‘all hands in’ session and those hungry bods tucked in to all the spare breakfast, which happened to be grilled kidneys on fried bread. Together with a round of bread and margarine and a cuppa, I always relished this dish. By the time we had washed, dried and stowed the breakfast things, scrubbed the tables and stools, I noticed one or two of the die-hards beginning to turn a shade of green, so they had to be dispatched to the upper deck rapidly. Came the call over the loud-hailer: "Working parties to muster at your work places." The Buffer, the senior seaman Chief P.O. who was in charge of the work parties, came to the mess deck, wanting to know where all his bodies were. When told that they could be found on the upper deck he exclaimed: "That’s why the ship has a list on, they must all be on the lee-side!" How he managed to start them working and what they did is beyond me. Not many of my mess-mates turned up for dinner or tea.

That first day in the Bay of Biscay reminds me of a poem learned in Bass-Hamlyn’s class.

"There’s a breathless hush in the close tonight,
Ten to make and the match to win."

There was a breathless hush on the mess-deck that evening; hammocks were slung very early and it was soon a case of all quiet on the western front! By the next morning the convoy had broken the back of the Bay, the sea was much calmer and the air noticeably warmer, which made a difference to the youngsters’ attitude to life. They had had their spell of rough weather, had not died, and now where was breakfast? With the air temperature rising the customary sailor’s blue jersey was put away and the rig of the day, when in uniform and not overalls, was a white shirt, ratings for the use of. The mess deck Chief gathered together all of us in charge of messes and we had a discussion about the dhobeying now that the warmer weather was upon us and white uniform would be worn more. So we worked out times in afternoons and evenings to take our youngsters into the bathrooms and instigate dhobeying sessions with economical use of fresh water. As the convoy’s first stop was to be Freetown the ship’s water-making capacity was crucial and one learned not to use it with gay abandon. Being on draft for foreign service meant that everyone was issued with a large white-covered cork helmet, called a ‘topi’, together with white tropical shirts, two in number and white shorts, tropical, two pairs. To support the shorts one was issued with a white belt and, just as in the Training Division, the wooden name stamp was used on every piece of the new uniform. Together with this extra kit were two pairs of navy blue stockings. So when dressed to kill, a rating was in white from his head to his knees and in blue stockings and black boots.

Now, the topis were the bane of our lives, kept in white linen bags and too large to stow into any kit bag or locker, kept clean by the application of Blanco, a block of white powder. A moistened sponge was rubbed on the block of Blanco and the resultant paste was applied to the topi. You can get an idea of what a topi was when you see a Royal Marine Bandsman in his dress uniform. To be on the upper deck between sunrise and sunset without a topi was an offence contrary to Good Order and Naval Discipline and one would be charged with laying oneself open to a self-inflicted injury, namely sunstroke. "And he calling no-one on his behalf!" One day on Daily Orders came a notice that the wearing of topis was no longer to be part of the rig of the day and it was no longer a part of a rating’s kit. There were yells of delight throughout the ship and several idiots - I was one of them - kicked our topis over the side. At least the linen bag came in handy for stowing parts of our white uniform. The next morning on the Daily Orders was another notice. Topis, no longer part of uniform, would be handed in to the Naval Store Officer during the dog watches; failure to do so would result in a fine of thirty-five shillings. To me that was a fortnight’s pay. What the Admiralty was going to do with those thousands and thousands of topis makes the mind boggle. Somebody must have been made an Admiral for coming up with that bright idea.

I can’t remember whether that amount was stopped from my pay. You may recall my account of a normal pay parade where the Chief Writer would call out the amount to be paid and the Supply Officer would pour out the contents of the envelope. Sometimes it transpired that through some negligence one would not be entitled to any pay and the Chief Writer would call out: "Not entitled, sir!" So the hopeful would walk away with nothing in his cap. On the mess deck this was known as the North Easter - as you can see the initials of the phrase are N.E. This aroused a lot of sympathy from the mess members and there was always the offer of a couple of bob until next pay-day. To my knowledge this sympathetic offer was never abused.

Eventually the convoy arrived at Freetown in Sierra Leone on the West Coast of Africa and the Glenearn anchored outside the harbour. Immediately, or so it seemed, the sea around the ship was covered with dugout canoes, propelled by natives. Dressed in the minimum coverage, each of them was an excellent swimmer and from the dugouts came the cries for a ‘Glasgow tanner’, a small silver threepence piece Throw a silver threepence piece, also known as a threepenny bit, over the ship’s side and the natives would dive out of the dug-outs and swim down until one would come up with the coin in his mouth. Then, once more, would come the call for a ‘Glasgow tanner’. Then came the dodge to wrap a farthing in silver paper, show it to the waiting hopefuls and throw it over the side. When retrieved and examined there would be howls of insults in the local language, usually ending up with: "You are not a very good man, sir." They soon realised that all the silver coins had been expended - seemingly they had no use for farthings - and left us. There were a number of ships in the convoy still to be visited.

The next attraction was a large number of dug-outs loaded with large stalks of bananas. The requirement this time was clothing or material for making clothing. Under no circumstances were the natives permitted to come aboard, so a barter system was organised where something was lowered at the end of a rope to a dug-out, the something examined, accepted, and a satisfactorily-sized stalk of bananas tied to the rope to be hauled up in exchange. Pretty soon exchanges were rapid and stalks of bananas coming up almost made the side of the ship look yellow. One of my lads came to me with a striped pyjama coat and when we showed this to one of the Johnnys (they were all answering to the name of John), he literally jumped up and down in his eagerness to accept. So the coat was tied and lowered into a dug-out almost overflowing with clothing. A large stalk of bananas was tied on in exchange and the lad eagerly hauled it up. The lad had to manhandle the large stalk over the waist-high gunwhale of the ship; as he was doing this, a large, black spider came out of the bananas and landed on the back of his hand. What did he do? Well, he let out a frightful yell and let go the stalk of bananas, which promptly dropped back like a bomb. Down it went, falling into the loaded dug-out and through the bottom of the craft. We saw the clothing floating away from the sinking boat and the two crew swimming, trying to rescue their goods. No clothing, no bananas.

By then the mess-decks were overflowing with stalks of bananas. Whereas a few days ago there was not a banana to be seen, now we didn’t know what to do with them. There were fried bananas from the galley, bananas in custard from the galley, banana sandwiches when one felt peckish and a: "Help yourself to one of my bananas," when passing another mess. Our bodies must have been overflowing with potassium for many days. And at one of the ship’s concerts, (the Naval handle was a ‘sod’s opera’), an old song entitled "I’ve Never Seen a Straight Banana" was revived.

The convoy crossed the Equator and this was a disappointment to me. On Naval warships especially, crossing the Equator was always celebrated with a "Crossing The Line" ceremony, when the ship was stopped on the line and King Neptune, together with his court, came aboard to search out all those crossing for the first time. Those unfortunates were roughly shaved and roughly handled, but at the end of the proceedings each of the victims was presented with a certificate to vouch that he had been ‘done’. This was a valuable piece of property, freeing the owner from any participation in future ceremonies and something to show when talking to old ‘salts’. I crossed the line twice in that convoy, but wartime restrictions cancelled the ceremonies; one couldn’t expect the convoy to stop - the Jerry submarine commanders would have had a field-day! Such was Naval routine that, with hundreds of Crossing The Line certificates being lost in sinking ships, when a warship crossed the line afetr the war and the ceremony was carried out, those one-time holders who could not produce a certificate, despite all protests, were rounded up by King Neptune’s courtiers and religiously done again. King Neptune spared nobody: captains of ships and officers were included if they could not show the necessary certificate. I have a "Blue Nose Certificate" to show that I have served north of the Arctic Circle when I was in the H.M.S. Eagle, but have never possessed one of the coveted Neptune’s certificates. It was worth possessing, a highly decorated affair, filled with "heretofores" and "wheretofores" in coloured inks, ship’s stamps all over it and dated and signed by King Neptune. From various yarns about crossing the line it appears that excited courtiers have caused some awkward moments when rounding up victims with the aid of Neptune’s trident. Officers beware! and Jaunties!

When south of the Equator we were often convoyed in turn by porpoises and flying fish. The porpoises could easily keep up with the Glenearn and seemed to play a game of chance by swimming across the bows of the ships; the flying fish would leap out of the water and, by spreading their wide fins, glide in the air for several yards. The next stop for the convoy was Cape Town, and from a long way off Table Mountain was visible. The Glenearn berthed alongside one of the jetties, so shore leave meant we could just walk down the gangway to be on land, instead of waiting for a liberty boat. What a welcome we received there! As each person stepped off the gangway he was given a large brown paper bag filled with various kinds of fruit and sticking out from the top of each bag was a pineapple. Families were waiting with their cars to pick up one or two service men, to whisk them off to see Cape Town and take them home for home comforts. Together with two other ratings I went in a car with the family of the manager of a car tyre factory; I think it could have been Dunlop, but that doesn’t matter. We were taken through Cape Town and visited the top of Table Mountain. Back with the family to their house to enjoy a lovely evening; nothing was too much trouble, then back to the ship, the bag of fruit not forgotten.

Just like the episode with the bananas, there were now bags of fruit everywhere. I gathered my mess-mates and rolled down the oil-cloth table covering. Together we sorted out the collection of apples, plums, peaches, grapes and pineapples. A problem arose as to how to peel a pineapple until somebody remembered tins of pineapple rings, so the problem then was what to use for slicing them. All we had were table knives and a seaman’s jack-knife was not much use. Now among my collection of lads were some bright bodies, waiting to go to university, until their call-ups came. I threw the problem to all of them and whilst pondering and "pr squaring" amongst themselves, one of them returned with a butcher’s saw which he had ‘borrowed’ from the galley. Have you ever tried sawing through a pineapple? What a ham-fisted shower we were - me just as awkward as the others! Obviously doing this on an oil-cloth wasn’t the answer, so we rolled it back and rested the fruit on the table to perform the operation. Upon sawing there was juice everywhere, but finally rings were obtained and skinned so that everyone had his share. Then a good scrub-out took place and the clean saw craftily returned to the galley. Believe it or not, on the next day’s Daily Orders there were instructions on how to cut open pineapples, but no mention of what sort of blade to use. We stuck to the butcher’s saw! What a sticky mess those operations made.

Before the war, service in the Southern Atlantic was considered not too bad and visits to Simonstown, the Naval Dockyard, were often talked about by the old ‘salts’ who had seen service there. So one afternoon I travelled to Simonstown, or ‘Snookie’ as it was known in the Navy, just to be able to say I had been there. To me there was not very much in evidence to stir the blood. I did see something which was distressing: that was the way the members of the Police Force seemed to think that they were so superior to everyone else. I had gone into a pub for a cooling beer and, when talking with the landlord, discovered that he had come from Chesterfield and - surprise, surprise, he had grown up knowing a family of Siddalls. We had a long chat and several beers; he so wanted to know what he had missed in ‘the old country’, as he called it. I then steered the conversation around to the subject of the police. He told me not to make trouble of any sort, not to fraternise with the coloured people when they were around and, above all, not to appear under the influence of liquor on the streets, as it let down the white people in front of the coloureds, which was a serious crime. I still have a picture in my mind of those big policemen, well tanned, in khaki drill uniforms, wearing what seemed to be very short shorts, with the odd one carrying a sjambock. From the way they eyed us up and down, I don’t think they liked us service men very much.

Some days and a lot of fruit later the convoy sailed round the Cape of Good Hope and North once again towards the Equator. Just a few weeks before we were in that vicinity a German raider had traded fire with one of our warships, so as a result we had frequent action stations routines and there was a scare that the raider was just below the horizon, waiting to pounce. I must mention that life on any ship in the Navy is kept at blood heat by ‘buzzes’- yarns which emanate from nowhere and anywhere. Usually the sources are wardroom stewards who heard the Commander tell Jimmy the One, or there must be leave coming up because the skipper wants his brown shoes cleaned. And so life at sea revolves around buzzes with a: "Have you heard the latest?" So it was nothing new when some had seen the flashes of gunfire over the horizon and we were off to pick up survivors. Just another buzz; we crossed the Equator once again, with no ceremony and no certificate.


on to Chapter 6. "Battle for Crete in a Motor Launch"
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revised 27/9/11